Description, Distraction, Disruption, Destruction: Notes and prompts on a practice

by Jeff Oaks

(This is a series of notes I made for a craft talk I gave this summer to the Chatham Summer Community of Writers.  I thank them for the opportunity to think about these things. I’ll post more tomorrow.)

When I was a young writer, I wanted to mean, not describe. The problem was that all I knew were clichés and oversimplifications I could only echo at best. The first poem I brought to my first creative writing teacher in college, for instance, started with a dove I’d actually found dead in an abandoned field where I liked to wander. I “saw” it only as a metaphor for my own sadness/fate, for the hurt and frustration I felt as a young man with feelings in a small town and in a complicated family that seemed not to notice them. I did not mention at all the actual sources of my frustrations. I didn’t think poets did that because I ‘d mostly only read 19th century poets. I simply wanted my teacher to tell me that my feelings were justified, that having feelings was a miracle, that I was terrific for having them. My teacher then was a grad student, a young woman who was careful and thoughtful enough not to comment on that poem but to instead gave me a simple assignment: I want you for your next poem, she said, to just describe something. I didn’t understand or think that was very helpful, of course. But I was a good student and smiled and went away. At home, though, I grew angrier and angrier, until finally I wrote what I thought was so deliberately plain a thing no one could see anything in it, and I and handed it to her. I knew I was taking a risk, but my anger at having my obvious genius overlooked threw all caution to the wind.

 What I described in that piece was a scene that I’d witnessed when I very young. My mother and I were in the Memphis airport on a layover. We were eating lunch above the busy airport lobby floor, and I was looking down when a man in a loud plaid shirt was being apprehended by a policeman. The man was loudly pleading against the tightness of the handcuffs, the pain of having his arms bent back. I remember feeling very uncomfortable watching a man plead like that. I wasn’t sure why the policeman had to bend the man’s arms so painfully. Why that image occurred to me as a thing to describe for this assignment wasn’t clear to me then; all I knew when I wrote it down is that it was vivid.

 When the teacher handed it out in workshop, I was amazed at the number of things that the other students saw in it that I hadn’t even known I put in there. My feelings of discomfort were in the details. The other students talked about a deeper meaning than I had “meant”: what it meant to witness something complicated and troubling. I had thought I was “just” describing a scene, but my surprise was (and still is) that when I write down what I see and resist writing down what I might want to mean, there is more to see than I thought.

 When I now give this assignment to my own students, some of whom come to me as equally eager for validation as I had been, I usually don’t tell them this story. As my teacher did, I let my students grow angry that I’m taking away their right to make meaning and struggle to write exactly as I’ve asked—only description! that sad doily-work of the writing profession!!! I secretly hope they’ll write it in the ten minutes before class so there’s absolutely no chance that it will be any good. I want them to risk both my anger at being mocked and their own anger at feeling talked-down-to.  

 Almost uniformly the solely descriptive things they hand in to me are among the best pieces they’ve written so far, and almost uniformly they don’t see it at first. Sometimes this makes them even more angry. Because we often don’t see anything where we don’t want there to be anything. The practice of describing, sometimes of just describing, can produce surprising and subtle eruptions of insight so keen the writer herself doesn’t immediately realize it’s happened until the teacher or class can talk them through it. For many, it’s the first time they’ve ever written without using a cliché. It’s the first time for many to find out that a poem can work without their conscious intention to be meaningful. This is also the first time they’ve made a mistake about their sense of themselves.


One of the reasons I chose description as a subject is because I’m finding myself more and more handing out descriptive assignments for my students, even quite advanced ones.

Why? I’ve been wondering to myself. Here are some reasons:

 1) the ability to represent the world or convincingly construct an alternative world is a necessary skill for any writer;

2) describing is a practice that students can use to generate writing when there is no pressing subject at the moment, and can generate writing when there is an overwhelming subject as well;

3) writing description is a way to disrupt their habitual (and a very human) way of working—in which they believe “angry” is a sufficient description of someone (or dangerous, or ugly, or any large generalization)—and can help them to move out of the world of first/narrow/anxious reactions into a world that is more considered, and richer.

An example for our prose brothers and sisters come from John Gardner’s, The Art of Fiction:

‘Describe a building as seen by a man who has just found out his only son has been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, death, the war, or the man doing the seeing.”

Although it’s much more focused than the poetry exercise, this assignment initiates us into description as way to explore the consciousness of the narrator or of any character, especially a character who is undergoing very complicated feelings, maybe even feelings we might call indescribable. One of the interesting things that happens in the Gardner exercise is that, in disrupting the writer’s ability to name/explain the cause of the character’s grief, the students come to realize that description offers them a deeper reach into the character than merely saying The man is grieving. Suddenly the man is all sorts of possible things.

4) the fourth reason I ask for description from my students is because I’m not actually sure that students have been asked to describe the world. All around us, people, movies, advertisements, political figures, friends throw their feelings on us until reacting back with feelings seems normal, even right. They’ve been asked to respond to everything with their feelings. So they might not have developed a habit for more-or-less objective description.

 But what came before that feeling, I like to ask students who begin sentences with their feelings, to get them to think about the process of arriving at a feeling, that it is complicated by a great number of things, and that feelings are not the perfectly defensible castle they seem to be. What made you afraid of that man on the street, I might ask. How was he walking? What were the small signals you were picking up? Give us those same details. Yes, as an artistic process, this is vital to practice, but also this is a humane practice, to be able to alter your reactions by seeing more carefully, more fully, by something as simple as looking and then describing.